NORMAL — Unit 5's bus contractor has "let us down," Superintendent Mark Daniel said Thursday, as hundreds of students again were late for school because of a lack of drivers.
In some cases, buses were running 90 minutes to two hours late. First Student notified the district of the problem at 6:45 a.m. and the district alerted principals, schools and parents.
The delays angered parents who have criticized First Student and the district after myriad transportation issues surfaced after school started in August, following the implementation of new routes, fewer buses and changes in school start times.
“There are some students that are consistently not getting to school on time,” said Daniel. “To me, that’s why we’re here — to have students in school on time so they can learn. First Student as a contractor has let us down in regards to that. We have to find a solution.”
First Student spokesperson Chris Kemper said the company’s full focus is on improving the situation.
“We fully understand our service hasn’t been what the community expects of us,” Kemper said Thursday. “We are working on a number of different fronts to fix that; a new routing system deployed last Monday, actively recruiting and working with current drivers to cover routes as best we can.”
Kemper said 14 drivers called in sick Thursday morning.
“What we presume is the driver is sick, just like a teacher who wakes up sick and calls in,” said Kemper. “Our drivers are working hard right now. Some buses were late this morning because drivers were working multiple routes.”
Angela DeJaynes of Bloomington has four children attending Fox Creek Elementary and Parkside Junior High schools.
“It’s just disheartening that there is no transparency between First Student and the district,” said DeJaynes. “There seems to be a lot of finger-pointing and it doesn’t seem like a team effort.”
She said her children’s bus has been “perpetually late and overcrowded” in the mornings.
Kemper said there is a national school bus driver shortage, adding First Student is actively recruiting drivers with a $2,000 sign on-bonus. Three new drivers for Unit 5 are set to graduate from the program this week.
Daniel said drivers have been consistently absent over the last few days and, one day last week, 21 First Student drivers didn't go to work. The company was able to pull substitute drivers from around the state and Wisconsin to cover those absences.
Daniel said First Student also reported 19 drivers absent on Wednesday; most of the positions also were covered by subs.
It was unclear how many substitutes were used to cover the 14-driver shortage on Thursday.
“When you bring subs to a new route, it impacts their ability to pick up students on time due to confusion,” said Daniel. “This continued absenteeism is creating unacceptable late buses. We’re relying on information from First Student and at times that has been incomplete.”
On Wednesday, DeJaynes received an early-morning phone call from Unit 5 that the bus would be more than an hour late, so she drove her kids to school. She didn’t receive a call when the bus was late Thursday, so she drove her children and some neighborhood children to school again.
“I have one neighbor who is paid by the minute,” said DeJaynes. “Every minute she’s late to work, she’s being docked pay. Parents can’t miss work to take their kids to school and driving them every day can cost a lot in gas.”
She added that she’s worried about how late buses will impact the students’ education.
“Missing first and second hour can’t be good for anyone,” she said. “Our neighbor is a high schooler who is set to graduate early and is worried being late might affect his GPA. It’s not fair to have this stress put on the kids.”
Daniel said there could be similar delays Friday if drivers continue to not report for work.
In the past week, the Normal-based district has been reporting progress toward fixing the problems, especially with overcrowded buses. The district also has launched a new after-hours call center for parents to call with bus concerns or questions. The number is 309-557-4800.